05 MatanPorat CarnavalCarnaval – A recital around Schumann’s Carnaval Op.9
Matan Porat
Mirare MIR502D (matanporat.com)

These are challenging times and what better way to help lift the pervading dark mood than a musical carnival – specifically Schumann’s Carnaval Op.9? The piece, completed in 1835, remains among the most beloved from the Romantic repertoire and, seemingly, would never warrant any degree of modification. Yet the Israeli-born pianist Matan Porat had other ideas, and the result is this splendid recording on the Mirare label, his third disc to date.

Porat acknowledged that while Carnaval is a quintessential document of Romanticism, he wanted to take a closer look at Schumann’s musical mind and expand upon the original score through the insertion of 23 additional short pieces by 18 composers as diverse as Heitor Villa-Lobos, François Couperin and György Kurtág. In so doing, Porat hoped it would not only shed light on music by other composers, but also inspire a greater appreciation for the original score.

And it works! Delivering a polished and elegant performance, Porat has clearly taken considerable care with the placement of the musical selections.  As an example, Schumann’s Pierrot is followed by Villa-Lobos’ A manha da Pierrette, written in the same coquettish mood. On the other hand, Kurtág’s Ostinato in A-flat, with its repeated bass notes, forms a fine introduction to Schumann’s Reconnaissance in the same key, which is followed by the  Prelude in C Minor from Bach’s first book of the Well-Tempered Clavier, and in turn, Pantolon and Columbine, all demonstrating the same frenetic energy.

Finally, after 43 tracks, what could be a better ending than the rousing Davidsbündler March, bringing the set to a most satisfying conclusion? Kudos to Porat, not only for an exemplary performance, but for his skillful reconfiguration of a much-loved piece – recommended.

06 Reawakened ClarinetReawakened – Clarinet Concertos
Robert Plane; BBC Scottish Symphony Orchestra; Martyn Brabbins
Champs Hill Records CHRCD160 (champshillrecords.co.uk/691/Robert-Plane-Reawakened)

Three long-overlooked British clarinet concertos here receive their first-ever recordings, “reawakened” by Robert Plane, principal clarinet of the BBC National Orchestra of Wales.

For unspecified reasons, Richard H. Walthew (1872-1951) left his Concerto for Clarinet (1902) in manuscript, unorchestrated until recently completed by Alfie Pugh. Its opening movement resembles Richard Strauss’ “Mozartian” style; the Andante and Vivace partake, respectively, of Edwardian nobility and jollity. It’s a charming, cheerful work, well worth a listen.

Ruth Gipps (1921-1999) composed her Clarinet Concerto in G Minor, Op.9 in 1940, the year she began studying with Ralph Vaughan Williams. His influence pervades throughout: in the first movement, the clarinet seemingly extemporizes over an outdoorsy walking bass; the bucolic mood is sustained in the pastoral slow movement and the folk-dancy finale. It’s another attractive audience-pleaser.

What should have been recognized by now as a major contribution to the clarinet repertoire is the CD’s longest, most colourfully scored, most modern-sounding work – the 28-minute Concerto for Clarinet and Orchestra, Op.7 (1950) by Iain Hamilton (1922-2000). Propulsive, irregular, even jazzy rhythms contrast with long-lined, darkly melancholic lyricism, all calling for extreme virtuosity from the soloist, amply provided by Plane.

Another first recording ends the CD – Graham Parlett’s arrangement for clarinet and string orchestra of the warmly lyrical Fantasy Sonata (1943), originally for clarinet and piano, by John Ireland (1879-1962), a minor master deserving much greater exposure in North America.

Four fine works, exuberantly performed, making one truly pleasurable CD.

07 Blomstedt Brahms 1Brahms – Symphony No.1
Gewandhausorchester Leipzig; Herbert Blomstedt
PentaTone PTC5186850 (naxosdirect.com/search/827949085062)

At the risk of stranding ourselves in a past we’ll never relive, we continue to revisit masterpieces from over a century ago. This provides work for my fellow performers and me, and possibly keeps the public in touch with sonic masterpieces. We might ask ourselves, what is new and different in this latest iteration? Otherwise, is there any point?

I take enormous pleasure in hearing the fine Gewandhaus Orchestra, under Herbert Blomstedt, recraft Brahms’ titanic First Symphony in C Minor Op.68 into audible form. The performance has so much clarity and poise, nothing I write in response can mean much at all. 

I’m no collector of things, nor of recordings, but I am a repository of memories, and this piece remains on a prominent shelf in the room where professional reminiscence is housed. As a student, the experience of hearing the wonderful energy and intelligence of Brahms’ First fuelled my desire to be among the lucky few who might perform it in a professional setting. Knowing how long he took to knuckle down and live up to his billing as the next great symphonist after Beethoven inspires me to carry on at my advanced age. 

It is a fantastic rendition, as good as any out there I’m sure, and worth owning whether it is one among many, or your first (even only) version. The playing is pure, both delicate and yet powerful. Blomstedt asks for and receives fine and subtle performances from the entire band. 

The Andante sostenuto second movement is languid and deliciously melancholy. Add in the uplifting finale, with its wunderhorn call and its hymn answering Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, and perhaps the troubles of today might be more bearable.

08 Alexandre Kantorow Brahms Bartok LisztBrahms; Bartók; Liszt
Alexandre Kantorow
Bis BIS-2380 (naxosdirect.com/search/bis-2380)

Young French pianist Alexandre Kantorow has already had a distinguished recording career with three award-winning releases. This recital is his first since winning the Tchaikovsky Competition in 2019 and it too is a real winner. As a thought-provoking musician he now focuses on the Rhapsody, a thoroughly Romantic genre, invented by Liszt followed by Brahms, Rachmaninoff, Ravel, Sibelius etc. and into the modern era with Bartók and even Gershwin.

Kantorow is not looking for popular show pieces, although his program offers plenty of hair raising virtuosity. He starts off with a very effective rendition of the tempestuous Brahms Rhapsody No.1 demonstrating a virtuoso Romantic abandon, full of fire, but also a gentle lyricism in the middle part. Kantorow is a truly mature artist who belies his age as evidenced in the most ambitious work on the program, Brahms’ Piano Sonata No.2. This was the youthful composer’s first major piano work and it is full of rich musical ideas, opulent harmonies, yet under strict compositional rigour. It starts off with virtuoso double fortissimo octaves as its opening salvo. I love the Trio part of the Scherzo, Poco piu moderato – a wonderful melody that enchants the ear.

The second half is devoted to Hungarians. Young Bartók’s Rhapsody Op.1, which harks back to the Romantic era, and in tribute to Liszt, seems to revel in beautiful harmonies and evokes Gypsy music. Very much unlike the later avant-garde Bartók. The fiery second part is a wild Hungarian dance of amazing bravura. 

The disc ends spectacularly with Liszt’s Hungarian Rhapsody No.11 played with such amazing gusto that it will lift you up from your seat. A gorgeous recording.

10 Dunhill Erlanger Piano QuintetsDunhill & Erlanger – Piano Quintets
Piers Lane; Goldner String Quartet
Hyperion CDA68296 (hyperion-records.co.uk)

British composers Thomas Dunhill (1877-1946) and Baron Frédéric d’Erlanger (1868-1943) each wrote a piano quintet, both in four substantial movements. Until Australia’s pre-eminent Goldner Quartet and pianist Piers Lane recorded them for Hyperion, however, these late Romantic works were largely overlooked by the musical mainstream.

Born in Paris, d’Erlanger lived for most of his life in London where he worked in the family business as a banker. His biography further notes that he was “by inclination a patron of the arts, and through creativity a composer.” His opera, ballet, orchestra and chamber music scores were widely performed during his lifetime. D’Erlanger’s 1901 Quintet reflects Brahmsian and Dvořákian influences, as well as a distinctive tunefulness paired with lively rhythms, playful thematic flow and a sure feel for drama. The substantial piano part certainly adds heft to the string quartet writing imbued with an audio palm court aura, on the lighter side of the classical music spectrum.

Londoner Thomas Dunhill on the other hand, d’Erlanger’s contemporary, was a prolific career composer and professor of music. His C-Minor Quintet evokes earlier 19th-century musical idioms drawing on Robert Schumann’s scores, but it also echoes Elgar’s chamber music.

Part of this album’s interest is in the dual thrill of discovery and (musical) time travel: I had heard of neither composer before, nor of their century-old music. Early Edwardian chamber music seldom sounded as good, particularly when played this well.

It’s been a simply terrific month for cello discs.

01 Rachmaninoff BarberCellist Jonah Kim and pianist Sean Kennard were together as teenagers at the Curtis Institute and again at Juilliard. For Rachmaninoff and Barber Cello Sonatas, their first album on the Delos label, they have chosen Rachmaninoff’s Cello Sonata Op.19 and Samuel Barber’s Cello Sonata Op.6 (Delos DE 3574 naxosdirect.com/search/de+3574).

The composers were both in their 20s when writing the works, and heart-on-sleeve romanticism and expansive melodies are common to both sonatas. Despite the balanced writing in the Rachmaninoff, there’s a notoriously difficult piano part which Kennard handles superbly.

There’s a deeply personal link to the Barber sonata here. Barber himself studied at the Curtis Institute and wrote his sonata there in 1932 with help from cellist and fellow student Orlando Cole, who premiered the work with Barber in 1933. Cole, who died in 2010 at 101, taught at Curtis for 75 years and counted Johan Kim among his students; Kim and Kennard received priceless coaching from Cole in their performance of the work.

There’s an abundance of lovely playing here, with a beautiful cello tone and a rich and sonorous piano sound perfectly suited to the flowing melodic lines that are central to these strongly Romantic works.

02 Dvorak Cello ConcertoKian Soltani is the soloist in the Dvořák Cello Concerto with Daniel Barenboim conducting the Staatskapelle Berlin in a performance recorded live in concert at the Berlin Philharmonie in October 2018 (Deutsche Grammophon 00028948360901 kiansoltani.com/discography).

Barenboim has been general music director of the orchestra since 1992, and the lengthy but lovely orchestral start to the concerto is a reminder of just how much of a master he is on the podium. He also has a personal connection with Soltani, having worked on the concerto with the cellist in 2014 prior to Soltani’s first concert performance of the work. Soltani plays the London ex-Boccherini Stradivarius cello on loan, and what a tone he produces! It’s a simply superb performance in all respects.

Five short Dvořák pieces arranged for solo cello and cello ensemble of six players – three of the arrangements by Soltani – complete the disc: Lasst mich allein (the song that has such emotional significance in the concerto); Goin’ Home (after the Largo from the New World Symphony); Songs My Mother Taught Me (from Gypsy Melodies Op.55); Allegro moderato (from Four Romantic Pieces Op.75); and Silent Woods (from From the Bohemian Forest Op.68).

The live performance of the concerto has richness, immediacy, depth, emotional commitment and tension and a great sound. Stay for the ensemble arrangements, but buy this CD for the concerto.

03 Shostakovich Cello ConcertosThe outstanding cellist Alban Gerhardt is back with more stellar performances on Shostakovich Cello Concertos, with the WDR Sinfonieorchester under Jukka-Pekka Saraste (Hyperion CDA68340 hyperion-records.co.uk).

Both works were written for the Russian cellist Mstislav Rostropovich, and despite Gerhardt’s admitted “utter adoration” for Rostropovich and an awareness of his relationship with the composer, he admits that he has ignored his interpretations, essentially because Shostakovich’s markings in both concertos were largely ignored by the Russian cellist.

The Concerto No.1 in E-flat Major Op.107 from 1959 has four movements, the third being a towering solo cello cadenza almost six minutes in length that perfectly frames Gerhardt’s technical and interpretational abilities.

The Concerto No.2 in G Major Op.126 from 1966 began as a memorial piece for the poetess Anna Akhmatova, who had died earlier in the year. An essentially reflective work, Rostropovich considered it the greatest of the numerous concertos written for him.

Terrific performances of two of the great 20th-century cello concertos make for an outstanding CD. 

04 Voice of HopeThere’s a very clear message in the programing of Voice of Hope, the new CD from the Franco-Belgian cellist Camille Thomas with the Brussels Philharmonic (Deutsche Grammophon 00028948385645 camillethomas.com/VoiceOfHope.php). Building a selection of songs, prayers and laments around the world premiere recording of the Cello Concerto “Never Give Up” Op.73 by the Turkish composer Fazil Say, it pays tribute “to people’s ability to triumph over adversity, create harmony in place of chaos, and overcome hatred with love.”

Say’s three-movement concerto, a vivid, emotional and quite unsettling but extremely effective response to terrorist attacks in Istanbul and Paris, was written for and premiered by Thomas. It is performed here on the 1730 Stradivarius cello once owned by Emanuel Feuermann, with the orchestra’s music director Stéphane Denève as conductor. The remaining tracks are conducted by Mathieu Herzog, who also made several of the numerous arrangements, only Bruch’s Kol Nidrei appearing in its original form.

Also included are Ravel’s Kaddisch, Dvořák’s Songs My Mother Taught Me, John Williams’ Theme from Schindler’s List, Wagner’s Träume from the Wesendonck-Lieder, Gluck’s Dance of the Blessed Spirits and well-known arias from the operas Dido and Aeneas, L’elisir d’amore, Norma, Werther, Don Giovanni and Nabucco. 

Thomas says that she “wanted to choose works that represented this idea that beauty will save the world, quite simply.” Quite simply, there’s certainly beauty in her playing.

05 Goldbergs for harpThe American harpist and organist Parker Ramsay has a master’s degree in harp performance from Juilliard, and is equally at home on modern and period instruments. Bach Goldberg Variations is his first solo harp recording, and it’s a remarkable accomplishment (King’s College Recordings parkerramsay.com).

Apparently the Goldberg Variations can only be played on the harp in G major, which luckily happens to be Bach’s key. A keyboard/harp comparison reveals interesting differences: difficult keyboard flourishes are often easier on the harp, while simple keyboard linear melodies are more difficult or even impossible, especially if rapid pedal changes are needed for chromatic passages. The modern pedal harp, though, offered Ramsay what he terms “the best of both worlds: it’s a plucked instrument like the harpsichord, but is sensitive to pressure, like the piano.”

Listening to this CD the first thing that strikes you is the astonishing articulation – the accuracy, fluency and agility, especially in the ornamentation and in the faster, more florid variations. With the harp’s added resonance Ramsay stresses the opportunity to present the harmonic structures as well as the contrapuntal in what is a gentle and atmospheric sound world.

In a recent New York Times article Ramsay says that he realized that “the way to hear this work – and most of Bach, for that matter – as I wanted would be to use my first instrument, the modern pedal harp.” On this remarkable and immensely intriguing and satisfying showing, it’s hard to disagree with him.

06 Bach McFaddenThere’s more Bach music in transcription on Volume One of Johann Sebastian Bach Cello Suites arranged for guitar (Naxos 8.573625 naxosdirect.com/search/747313362578) by Jeffrey McFadden, the outstanding Canadian guitarist who is Chair of Guitar Studies at the University of Toronto, and whose debut recording in the early 1990s was the first CD in the prestigious Naxos Guitar Laureate Series.

It’s not unusual for recorded works to take a year or two to reach CD release, but both the McFadden arrangements (which remain unpublished) and the recording here were made in 2009. Still, there’s no doubting the quality and effectiveness of both the arrangements and the performance of the three Suites No.1 in G Major BWV1007, No.2 in D Minor BWV1008 and No.3 in C Major BWV1009. Recorded at St. John Chrysostom Church in Newmarket by the always-reliable Norbert Kraft (with whom McFadden studied) the sound quality on a charming disc is, as usual, exemplary.

Volume Two is apparently scheduled for release this month.

07 Alex ParkThere certainly seems to be no shortage of outstanding young guitarists these days. Classical Guitar is the debut release from guitarist Alex Park, and offers exemplary performances of a range of short pieces both familiar and unfamiliar (alexparkguitar.com).

The Gigue from Ponce’s Suite in A Minor provides a bright and brilliant opening to a recital that ranges from Conde Claros by the 16th-century Spanish composer Luis de Narváez and John Dowland’s Allemande (My Lady Hunsdon’s Puffe) through Handel’s Sarabande & Variations and Debussy’s The Girl with the Flaxen Hair to the traditional Irish tune Spatter the Dew. 

Four standard classical guitar pieces – three of which display Park’s dazzling tremolo technique – complete the disc: Tarrega’s Recuerdos de la Alhambra; Albéniz’s Leyenda; Villa-Lobos’ Prelude No.2 (given a performance more fluid than many); and Agustín Barrios’ Una Limosna por el Amor de Dios.

The publicity blurb for the CD release noted that Park has “a superb sense of dynamics, tempo and phrasing, performing with deep expression.” Add terrific technical assurance and you have a pretty good description of the playing here.

08 Saisons FrancaisesThe Russian duo of violinist Anna Ovsyanikova and pianist Julia Sinani is in top form on Les Saisons Françaises, a quite delightful recital disc of late 18th- and early 19th-century French music by Debussy, Lili Boulanger, Ravel and Poulenc (Stone Records 50601927780963 stonerecords.co.uk).

There’s warmth and a lustrous violin tone in the 1917 Debussy Violin Sonata in G Minor and a beautifully clear and bright performance of Boulanger’s Deux Morceaux – Nocturne and Cortège. Two works that are less often heard are the real gems here though: Ravel’s single-movement Sonata for Violin and Piano No.1 “Posthume” and Poulenc’s three-movement Sonata for Violin and Piano.

The Ravel work was written in 1897 while the composer was still a student but wasn’t published until 1975, almost 40 years after his death. It’s a really lovely piece that combines Romantic and Impressionistic styles and moods. 

Poulenc apparently destroyed several earlier attempts at a violin sonata, his only surviving work in the genre being the sonata composed in 1942-43 at the request of, and with the help of, Ginette Neveu. Following Neveu’s tragic death at the age of 30 in a 1949 plane crash, Poulenc revised the finale, reducing the length and reworking the violin part. Both versions of the movement are included here.

The composer himself was disparaging about the work – it is ”alas not the best Poulenc,” he said, and “Poulenc is no longer quite Poulenc when he writes for the violin” – but at this remove it seems a gorgeous and quite idiomatic work. Given performances like this it makes you wonder why it isn’t firmly established in the standard repertoire.

09 Joshua Bell At Home With Music Live Joshua BellThe CD Joshua Bell: At Home With Music (LIVE) presents eight performances from the PBS-TV special Joshua Bell: Live At Home With Music broadcast on August 16. Described as “A musical soirée of intimate performances from home, while sharing a behind-the-scenes look at family, Bell’s own musical inspirations, and more,” the CD features the soprano Larisa Martínez (Bell’s wife) and pianists Peter Dugan, Kamal Kahn and Jeremy Denk (Sony Classical 886448695332 joshuabell.com/#recordings).

The first movement of Beethoven’s Spring Sonata provides a lovely opening to a program that includes Kreisler’s arrangement of Dvořák’s Slavonic Fantasy in B Minor, Wieniawski’s Polonaise de Concert in D Major Op.4, Chopin’s Nocturne in E-flat Major Op.9 No.2 and Heifetz’s arrangement of Summertime from Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess.

Martínez is the vocalist in Ah, ritorna, età dell’oro from Mendelssohn’s Infelice, Quando m’en vo from Puccini’s La Bohème and a Medley from Bernstein and Sondheim’s West Side Story.

Playing the 1713 Huberman Stradivarius with an 18th-century bow by François Tourte, Bell exhibits a full-blooded, all-in approach that doesn’t for a moment imply any lack of subtlety or nuance. It’s simply captivating playing.

02 TelemannTelemann – Concertos & Ouverture
Arion Orchestre Baroque; Alexander Weimann
ATMA ACD2 2789 (naxosdirect.com/search/acd2+2789)

Georg Philipp Telemann was a prolific composer. One commentator made the astonishing claim that the sheer quantity of Telemann’s compositions is more than all the works of Bach, Mozart, Haydn, Beethoven and Schubert combined! Yet the self-taught, self-made Telemann was not just an ordinary workaholic. He was also recognized as a master of many of the international and regional musical styles of his era, a kind of Baroque transnational genre fusionist. In his works for the church, opera and the emerging German public concert scene, his skillfully orchestrated scores were seldom pro forma. They typically exhibit clear melodies, buoyant dance rhythms, adventurous harmonies and exploit mood and drama. 

Montreal’s Arion Orchestre Baroque (founded in 1981) makes a strong case for the three Telemann works on this album. Quebec recorder virtuoso Vincent Lauzer tears into the first track of Concerto in C Major with youthful gusto. The spirited fourth movement Tempo di minuet sets the stage for Lauzer’s displays of speed double tonguing, crisp arpeggios and dramatic octave leaps – performed with lyrical grace and aplomb.

Bassoonist and conductor Mathieu Lussier joins Lauzer in the double Concerto in F Major. The playful four-movement work pits the penetrating treble recorder against the characteristically muffled-sounding Baroque bassoon, an example of the composer’s interest in unusual sonic combinations. 

Telemann’s ten-movement Overture in G Major – one of his 200 (sic) Overtures – is influenced by the French Baroque style he admired and includes a pastoral trio of two oboes and a bassoon. It receives its premiere recording here. 

I’m pleased to report that Telemann’s witty and engaging music, composed more than 250 years ago, lifted my clouded pandemic mood. It has the power to uplift other music lovers too.

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